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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Monastic meandering

November 17, 2008

Nishy Wijewardane
The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
November 16, 2008

In this second article, Nishy Wijewardane wanders through Ladakh's
scenic Buddhist monasteries and ancient culture on the far side of
the Tibetan Plateau.

Ladakh's contribution to the Silk Road

Hidden behind the dramatic Great Himalayan, Zanskar and Ladakh
mountain ranges, Ladakh's (and its capital Leh's) fame arose mainly
due to its pivotal role as a relatively stable (since 16C AD)
exchange point where agents for Kashmir's famous silk/wool weaving
industry sourced prized "pashm". This was the fine raw wool from
domesticated goats grazed in the high pastures of Tibet, mainly by
the Changpa nomadic people; "pashmina" is the cloth woven from it.
"Toosh" is another prized material even softer and finer than pashm,
derived from undomesticated species, particularly the rare Tibetan
antelope -- each animal is said to yield only 200 grams seasonally.
In turn, shawls, silks, tea, spices, food grains were traded upwards
from Kashmir towards the plateau (Leh-Yarkand, China thus became an
important feeder route into classical Silk Road networks) and its
intricately connected Silk Road trails that led far away to the High
Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim, China, and of course the
West via Central Asian lands.
Shey Chorten in the setting sun

Woollen cloth, Khotanese carpets, Chinese silks, porcelain and silver
came via Tibet; iron, dyes, sugar, spices and cotton came from India
and Nepal. Basic food grains, yak butter (famously produced in
secluded Zanskar), salt, wool, potatoes, barley and meat were (and
are) commonly bartered at local fairs by communities along the way,
such as those in Gartok (west Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar).

Caravans of mules and pack horses (still seen today) - sometimes
sheep - carried heavy goods through the treacherous high passes of
Ladakh; some areas in Zanskar were accessible to such packs only over
frozen rivers in winter.

Diplomats of the ancient world

Much of the Leh-Yarkand trademark caravan trade was surprisingly
conducted by merchants from Khokand, an old Islamic khanate in
Ferghana Valley (today's northern Uzbekistan), through which I had
travelled in 1999 (see "The Wild Flower Meadows of Kyrgyzstan", ST,
November 11th, 2007). In 1887 Francis Younghusband, the English
adventurer, gives this very apt description of these remarkable traders :

"It is in these [caravan] serais that one meets the typical
travelling merchants of Central Asia, and often have I envied these
men their free, independent, wandering life, interspersed with enough
of hardships, of travel, and risks in strange countries to give it a
relish. They are always interesting to talk to: intelligent, shrewd,
full of information…they are very cosmopolitan, and do not really
belong to any country except that in which they are at the time
living. And this habit of rubbing up against men of so many different
countries gives them a quiet, even temperament and breadth of idea
which makes them very charming company."

The rise of religious trade in western Tibet

Religion forms an inextricable bond with Ladakh historically and the
region, as with many former Silk Road khanate areas I have seen, is
an inexact potpourri of races. Ladakhis are of mixed race, with the
Changpa mongoloid nomadic shepherds from the upper plateaus of Tibet
being the old forerunners thousands of years ago. They were joined
later by lowland Indians (the "Mon" people), largely craftsmen and
cultivators as well as followers of emerging Buddhism, who slowly
populated the lower valleys. With their arrival, many fortifications
arose and Indian artistic influences (from carpentry to music) began
to infuse Tibet. Thereafter, by about 7C AD, the "Dards," Aryans (to
become nomadic pastoralists) from Muslim Hunza in today's northern
Pakistan began to move into the region, and became also known as
"Drugpas". Trade between Changpas and Dards thrived around 7C AD as
Tibet's own influence over Ladakh strengthened. They were later
joined by the "Balti" trader Muslims from Baltistan, today in
Pakistan. With the ebb and sway of these communities and their
symbiotic interaction with others on the greater Silk Road, Ladakh
itself grew in fame though always strongly meshed spiritually with
older Buddhist Lhasa, its neighbour 1,400 kilometres away.

Much of this "trade" was, however, under the religious shadow that
the once vibrant and uniquely Tibetan kingdom cast over this whole
region in excess of a millennia. Indeed many of the countless trading
missions and the socio-economic interactions trade spawned had
distinct quasi religious motives : Ladakhi and Bhutanese tributes to
Tibet, even of Tibet to China, and the protection of lama monks and
monastic dues that helped foster and stimulate it. Envoys in charge
of religious missions were, for example, accorded specific privileges
of private trade, with free carriage given by people living along the
trade routes. Even Buddhist monasteries routinely effected trade, as
did wandering "trading pilgrims", in as much as private traders who
followed. The cultural appendages that this produced no doubt help
explain the heritage of religious life, processions, festivals and
even dress seen today in Ladakh.

A mystical land ruled by spirits

Since India allowed international access into this isolated region in
1974 (restrictions still apply for instance to the fabled Zanskar
valleys - Sri Lankans and Pakistanis are not welcome), Ladakh has
been a magnet for travellers due to its atmospheric landscapes and
predominant Buddhist flavour. With about 30 large monasteries
("gompas") spread in isolated corners in an already remote region,
with hundreds of smaller monasteries and shrines, this is a
spiritually concentrated and connected land where the sense of
"otherworldliness" was almost unrivalled. The Dalai Lama, a frequent
visitor, is naturally revered by all; his photographs adorn shops in
almost every settlement.

Most of the lamas are broadly divided into the "Duck pas," or red
caps, and the "Spiro goons", yellow caps, with philosophical
differences that transcend this brief article. Village life is still
defined in relation to religious principles and the local monastery;
the principal lama ("kasha") and his subordinates carry great
influence, for example in the spheres of education and "swaripa"
ayurvedic medicine, over a population whose life seems resolutely
spiritually arranged around colourful religious festivals held in the
monasteries' courtyards. Supernatural forces (as evidenced in
"thangkas" - religious paintings), divination of omens, harmful and
helpful spirits and blessings thereof… continue to play a vital part
of life amongst ordinary Ladakhis. Houses are painted in red to ward
off ghosts, walls white to retain benevolent beings; monastic symbols
(and personal amulets) abound.

Reclusive "tantrikas" who master spirits, intervene for local needs
and advise people on travel, activities, auspicious events, rites and
donations to the lamas…while skulls of dogs, sheep and even humans
are serenaded on poles at high points of buildings to ward off evil
spirits. We may be in a so-called digital age but here spirituality
and age-old human questions reign. In an environment as harsh,
desolate and isolated as here, with the seasonal hardships of life
that accompany, all these help to sustain the inner spirit of a
gentle, smiling people defined by timeless customs.

Travelling across this landscape, I zigzagged to visit 10 of its more
accessible monasteries dotted across the broad Leh valley (11,500 ft).

The Chortens of Shey Palace

South of Leh, the most cosmopolitan of towns in Ladakh and agreeably
so, there lies the Shey Palace, the summer residence of the Ladakhi
kings (15C AD). Climbing up the inevitable stairs to it (as always
perched on a hillock), I wandered in the fading light of one
afternoon, just before the main doors closed. The monastery
particularly houses a 40 foot gold-copper plated Buddha statue
inside. A huge chorten (dagoba), one of Ladakh's largest, in the
centre of the "palace" (-a collection of rooms including a library,
some very dank and dark) towered skywards while the last rays of a
setting sun brilliantly streamed through narrow passageways on its
sides. I walked gingerly along a precarious two-foot wide crumbling
ledge, anxious not to connect too prematurely with the past, and
viewed a striking mud and wood façade of palace rooms; an unusual
stretch of eight white smaller chortens aligned in a line on a
religiously significant axis overlooked the vista of the valley below.

As I was leaving, a group of visiting local lamas with a senior
figure at their centre emerged on a front balcony-courtyard, chatting
amiably. I watched as one lama held aloft a string of prayer flags
which he carefully tied to others fluttering across the courtyard,
casting blessings to the wind. Far above him, some kilometres away,
Thiksey monastery sat alone on a mountain ridge while clouds closed
in, signalling the onset of dusk and casting huge floating shadows
over vast swathes of terrain ahead like some great chess game. In
Ladakh, light is everything; it punctuates the terrain at every
instance and the resulting effects highlight the stark landscape in
an exquisite manner. Little wonder, therefore, that paintings of
demons and thunder are drawn so vividly!

Thiksey Gompa, the other face of Potala

Thiksey is the alternative face of the Potala Palace at Lhasa,
bearing such a general resemblance and positioning that it is a
convenient pictorial double. Entering it, one is struck both by its
deep red coloured walls, wood framed upper "apartment-styled" rooms,
as well as the delightful hollyhock flower beds in its lower sections.

The monastery houses a gold gilded statue of Maitreya which rises
through two inner floors. As with every monastery in Ladakh, stunning
views of a mountain-ringed valley filter through its windows. As I
looked out of the room, a young adult lama in his red robes was
playing joyfully in a mock wrestling match with a boy lama of about 8
years, a very distinctive boy whom I seemed to recognize instantly
from a Cannes-prize winning film of Ladakh made a few years ago!

Shrines within shrines at Hemis Gompa

One of Ladakh's biggest and wealthiest monasteries is Hemis Gompa,
located up against the rear edge of a steep valley side about 45 kms
from Leh. Dating to the early 17C AD, and with a vast array of rooms
and courtyards, this takes some time to peruse. A centrepiece is the
three storey statue of sage Padmasambhava of Swat (Guru Rinpoche). I
entered its central dark and silent inner shrine room, with alcoves
to various deities along its periphery and a long overhanging cloth
"ears" of the Buddha; a room similar to many I had encountered in
Bhutanese monasteries and the revered Tagong Monastery in remote
grasslands of Kham plateau, Sichuan. Butter lamps flickered in much
of the darkness but some natural light streamed through overhead
shafts. Beautiful thangkas (it has the largest in Ladakh (40 ft) but
unfurled every 12 years - next in 2016) and other ornate decorations
and murals festooned the room and incense wafted across in a corner.
I climbed barefoot to the roof of the monastery from where another
stunning view back down the valley greeted me, as did two travelling
elderly New York women, worshipping deities at every turn.

The rape fields of Chemery Gompa

Chemery monastery, a favourite, was larger and surrounded by stony
mountains and beautiful fields of rape that framed it uniquely. A
long rain-swept road ran up to its entrance through a desolate plain
of huge glacial boulders and looked - from the monastery ledges -
marvellously snake - like in pattern from on high. Inside, it
featured a distinctive purple ceilinged painted courtyard and a
shrine-side with many "rolling pin" prayer wheels. Peering out from
its rooftop, serenaded with long stakes topped by spiritual motifs to
ward off bad omens, I gazed across yellow fields into barren
landscapes. The sense of isolation was distinct even though a small
silent village lay below me. Unfortunately, most of its rooms were
locked and not a single lama was in sight; they had all gone to a
gathering at Hemis Gompa celebrating an 800th anniversary.

Cave murals of reclusive Tak Thok Gompa

In a far corner of the valley 50 km from Leh and past Chemery, lies
Tak Thok, the only black cap or Nyingma-pa order gompa. Tak Thok
("top of the rocks") is tiny in comparison and built into a rocky
hill, rather like a Sri Lankan rock temple. A mercifully short climb
led to a small courtyard graced with bright murals. A further line of
steps led into a dark cave.

The brightness of the day rendered me temporarily blind in the
darkness, but gradually, after a frustrating 15 minutes, my eyes
adjusted to the traditional Tibetan styled murals and figurines
around me. A young guardian monk, noticing my discomfort, lit butter
lamps and in its yellow hues further drawings on the low cave ceiling
- old and faded due to centuries of lamp smoke - materialised.
Elsewhere, I visited half finished rooms overlooking beautiful
village fields from high up. My only companions were chirping
sparrows as they wheeled around this absolutely silent location.

Back on the road to Kashmir and 70 km from Leh, I visited Alchi
monastery, renowned for some of the region's oldest murals dating
from about 11C AD.

This was one of the few shrines where one could walk down rather than
climb up! In a series of interlocking small white walled garden
courtyards along a gushing Indus river, and overflowing with fresh
grass, some apricot trees and numerous hollyhock beds, I followed a
line of local pilgrims, lamas and a few foreigners. We jostled
through narrow doorways into five temple shrine rooms, lit by torchlight.

Though housing acclaimed Indo-Tibetan art forms, many of the publicly
visible murals had faded, and few had the brilliance of many such
Buddhist paintings I had seen travelling across Chinese Xinjiang.

Festival times at Spittuk Gompa

A few dusty kilometres off the main Leh-Srinagar road a religious
festival was taking place at Spittuk Monastery (15C). The monastery
was packed with locals and foreign visitors when I arrived. In the
central courtyard, a series of slow dances, with lamas wearing an
array of masks representing gods, animals and demons, took place to
the accompaniment of a rhythmic monastic orchestra armed with horns,
cymbals and drums. The stories they acted were not apparent to the
onlooker, but an articulate local visiting lama explained some of its
meanings to me. Meanwhile two other dancers, with comic shaggy maned
masks circulated through the crowd, making local jokes and collecting
Later, I ambled in the adjacent village fair and spotted a barely
seven-year-old boy-monk happily brandishing a balloon and plastic
pistols as he played an imaginary shootout with a local urchin. It
reminded me that children are children everywhere, holy or not.
Rather poignantly, however, months later this memory (omen?)
symbolically fused with the ugly military scenes that were taking
place in Burma against the clergy and the less traumatic Tibetan
demonstrations in Lhasa.

Vistas of Stok

One of my last nights in Ladakh was spent in a lonely but extremely
panoramic guesthouse, with only my two children and I as sole
occupants. The scene from Stok (housing a monastery and a palace for
Ladakh's last royalty) across the valley side from Leh, was dazzling.
Memorably too, no bathroom in the world could match the view from my
toilet window. It took some convincing of the solitary staff to give
us a little generator light (and food) at night. In the morning,
seated out in the isolated garden fringed by chorten ruins nearby, a
surreal breakfast was consumed under impeccably blue skies and a vast
open landscape, uniquely Ladakh.

Well above the "noise" of the modern world, Ladakh still maintains a
serenity that even only a few Silk Road regions can match and many of
its far flung corners will continue to retain spiritual sanctity and
earthly beauty for time to come. My only regret was inaccessibility
to some inner areas due to political shortsightedness, and the
frustrating - road barred - nearness to western Tibet's (now China)
ancient Guge kingdom above Ladakh that I long wished to see. To do
that one needs today to make a nonsensical 3,340 kilometre detour
which I will have to do one day.
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